Among the pioneers and luminaries named to the California Hall of Fame in 2008 is a woman whose vision and skill make her a giant of architectural genius, though she stood but five feet tall. Julia Morgan’s work adorns California from the Bay area and far beyond, crowned by her most famous work, the design and construction of Hearst Castle that hovers over San Simeon Bay.
An Architect by Birth
Morgan was born in 1872 in San Francisco and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1894 equipped with a degree in civil engineering. This was likely not the first indication that Julia Morgan was destined to become a groundbreaker for women in a male dominated profession, but it was the springboard for an illustrious career that blazed a path in architectural innovation.
Her skills were finely honed at one of the world’s most prestigious architectural schools, Ecole des Beaux- Artes in Paris. There, pushing the limits of convention, she was twice denied admission. According to Morgan, her rejection was based solely on gender. Finally admitted after placing 13th out of a field of 376 applicants to take the rigorous entrance exam, she became the first woman to graduate with an architectural degree from the world famous school.
A Career Begins
Julia Morgan had a singular focus – architecture suited to the environment that surrounded the building. She was able to successfully blend the strictly classical training she received in Paris with her home-grown love of the California landscape in its many natural variations. . In 1904, she again exerted her individuality and started her own architectural firm in San Francisco. She began to receive commissions and build a reputation. One of her first assignments was a home in Grass Valley, in the foothills of the Sierra, where she built the North Star House in the Arts and Crafts style.
The widespread devastation of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake caused an interesting side effect as the acute need for rebuilding mitigated prejudice against a female architect. Her own office, on Montgomery Street, was among the hundreds to crumble into ruins. From those years of intense design and reconstruction, Julia Morgan was never at a loss for work and her reputation grew as steadily as did her body of work.
Assertive and Individual
Certainly, one of the hallmarks of Morgan’s hundreds of homes, buildings and public edifices is eclecticism. Armed with her classical education, she was never caught up in a particular trend, design or architectural paradigm. Morgan designed her buildings with consideration for the site, use and the surrounding environment. Her work ranged from extraordinarily ornate and opulent, to simple and functional. She was comfortable working in many architectural styles and considered each commission a newly stretched canvas upon which she’d create a site-specific masterpiece.
The range of Julia Morgan’s work is equally extensive. She built for billionaire magnates such as William Randolph Hearst, but attacked more modest projects with the same dedicated focus. Among her public buildings are YWCA’s, the Riverside Art Museum and the Los Angeles Examiner Building. She also worked extensively on college campuses in Northern California and designed the Mills College Bell Tower as well as buildings for churches and private homes.
She is most widely known for her work with the Hearst family. The crown jewel, of course, is Hearst Castle which is visited by millions of people each year. There, she was remembered for wearing stylish slacks and silk blouses while scrambling quickly into the construction work to make certain the details of her design were being followed and properly executed by craftsmen, carpenters and masons. Julia Morgan dedicated years of labor, love and exceptional creativity to build the vast estate that sits atop “La Cuesta Encantada” – The Enchanted Hill. As visitors from around the world know, it takes many hours to appreciate the 165 rooms, gardens, water features and acres that make Hearst Castle a woman-made wonder on the Pacific Coast.
From Bavaria to Wyntoon
Less well known, but nonetheless breathtaking is the Bavarian Village at Wyntoon, built in the 1930s. This was Hearst’s 50,000 acre getaway that lies in the shadow of Mount Shasta in Northern California. At this heavily wooded site, Julia Morgan felt the pull of Bavaria and Austria, with timbered building sheltered by tall pines and crisp clean air filled with the scent of pine.
To make Hearst’s many distinguished guests comfortable, Morgan designed three guest houses, each three stories tall. There were four to eight bedrooms in each timbered house along with sitting rooms. All looked out to a grassy expanse and backed up to the rushing sound of the McCloud River that meanders through the estate.
True to her love and connection to the natural environment, Morgan used local stone and wood in the construction of the Bavarian Village. The effect remains timeless as steep roofs jut skyward with many gables and faceted windows framed by massive timbers. It is, indeed, as if a small piece of Bavaria was lifted up and gently eased into the California landscape. But, upon closer examination Julia Morgan’s touch of genius took the traditional architecture to new heights. The many artistic touches and unusual conventions that Morgan brought to the Village are entirely unique.
In preparation for building the Village, Morgan and her sister, Anna, traveled with Hearst to Bavaria in 1931. Some experts speculate this visit furthered Morgan and Hearst’s resolve to carry forth the Bavarian theme because they sensed the rise of Adolf Hitler might threaten the survival of Austrian and Bavarian architectural treasures.
The Wyntoon Bavarian Village guest houses were named for fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty among others. A noted muralist from New York added his artistry to the outside walls of two of the buildings, painting fanciful scenes of tales from the Brothers Grimm. Among the most embellished was Hearst’s personal home on the property – the Bear House. There, the muralist painted scenes from Snow White and Rose Red over the entire stucco exterior.
As with many of Julia Morgan’s major projects, select artisans – men and women – traveled with her to ply their craft on her projects. Although she never married, Morgan attracted a rich following of friends and colleagues in whom she had confidence and respect for their work. Wyntoon is a prime example of the kind of team work that characterized Julia Morgan’s long and successful career.
An Isolated End
After hundreds of notable projects and widespread recognition of her considerable talent and leadership, Julia Morgan’s last years were spent in self-imposed isolation. With many of her friends and family gone, including Hearst who died in 1951, Morgan felt herself failing. No longer able to work, to express the passion that had fueled her life, she chose to become reclusive. She died on February 7, 1957, leaving behind endowments for aspiring architects, scholarships and an unparalleled body of work.
She also left behind a road – one that started out a rough and cobbled path to be maneuvered by only the most bold and brave of young women. Today, that road is paved and many women architects stand on the mighty reputation of Julia Morgan, a California original.